Never in your wildest dreams

A Blair Cabinet full of Tories and Liberals - is this the stuff of nightmares or reality? Donald Macintyre dreams on ...
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The new Chief Whip was elated. He would remember every detail of that April Friday in 1997 for the rest of his life. He had particularly enjoyed the Evening Standard editorial: "By appointing one of the toughest and ablest Labour middle-ranking front benchers as his Chief Whip, while leaving all the Cabinet appointments - including that of Chancellor - until tomorrow, Prime Minister Tony Blair has sent two clear signals to his party: first that he attaches the highest priority to party discipline; and second that not one of his former Shadow Cabinet colleagues can expect a place in the new administration as of right..."

But with his wife, exhausted by the three-week general election campaign (which had resulted in a Labour overall majority of 151 seats) still at home in his Northern constituency with their two children, he had no one to celebrate with. So that afternoon, he rang his closest friend, a fellow student from Ruskin days and now a primary school head in Southwark, and persuaded him to come and have dinner in Gran Paradiso. Unusually for a rather ascetic man, he ordered a bottle of house champagne and a Chianti Classico. It was an enjoyable occasion; they laughed a lot, and when he went back to his Pimlico flat, he fell happily and almost instantly into a deep sleep...

He was late and his legs felt heavy. He had walked almost the full length of the corridor before he realised that he was heading for the office of the Leader of the Opposition. He had only once been to the Prime Minister's office in the Commons before - to see John Major with a delegation of steel industry shop stewards and it took him some time to find it. But when he arrived, Tony Blair got up from behind the big desk and flashed him the famous smile. Except that there was an intangible hint of menace in the Prime Minister's expression. "Good to see you, Chief" he said - and they both laughed, a little awkwardly. "I want to share my thinking on the new Cabinet with you. But it may come as a bit of a shock. I think you'd better sit down."

Blair called for coffee and began. "What have we learnt in the past two years, particularly about the Conservative Party?" The Chief Whip's mind went frighteningly blank. But the Prime Minister was clearly in didactic mood and hardly paused for breath. "We've just fought a long hard campaign. So it's natural for us to see the fault line in British politics as one between Labour and the Conservatives. And at one level that's right. But look at what the campaign showed. Ken Clarke, in that speech in Dudley on the single currency, made it clear that even in an election he wasn't going to put up with the ravings from Planet Portillo.

"The fact is there is another fault line which goes right through the Conservative Party. And in my view, it's deeper than the one between Labour and those who formed the SDP in 1981. Consider this point. About 60 per cent of politicians don't really believe anything. But about 40 per cent do. Ken Clarke's one of them and so am I. And who do you think Clarke's closer to? Portillo or me?

"But, but..." the Chief Whip heard his own strangely disembodied voice stammering: "But he's a ... bloody Tory."

"I'll come to that in a moment," said Blair briskly. He reached for his Red Box and pulled out some well-thumbed sheaves of papers. "Now, I'm going to read you a couple of extracts from speeches made in 1994: 'Imagine the private-sector or public-sector middle manager in Middle England who may be told that his organisation is being downsized. He will want to feel that there is a high-quality health and education system and a modernised affordable welfare system which will assist him with the means to re-train and find new employment.'

"Now listen to this: 'A functioning economy and labour market needs stability. That means the middle manager needs to be able to count on the stability that comes from the opportunity to get another job if the previous one disappears and from a secure home and family.' So who said which?"

Uneasily the Chief Whip replied: "I remember the first passage. It was one of your speeches during the leadership campaign." He paused and added hopefully: "Was the second one Gordon?"

"Wrong," the Prime Minister replied. "The second was mine. And the first was Ken Clarke's lecture at the LSE. I could have said it. But he did. And, actually, you should have guessed that the reference to the family was mine. See my point?"

The Chief Whip was not at all sure that he did. But Blair was by now unstoppable. "Now there are differences. Clarke would say that he disagrees with me on the Social Chapter and the national minimum wage. But I'll bet you if Clarke had been in a Cabinet which faced a choice between agreeing to the Social Chapter and ditching the Maastricht treaty altogether, he'd have opted for keeping the watered-down version of the Social Chapter that Kohl offered John Major rather than ditch the treaty. It was only because Major negotiated the opt-out that the choice never arose.

"And you never know, he might come round on the minimum wage. After all there's an intellectually respectable way for him to look at it. What you're really doing is privatising in-work benefits for the lowest paid - making the private sector pick up the bill for something we don't think the state should do. You see, we've been saying that New Labour isn't old left and it isn't new right. And the point is that Ken Clarke is no more new right than you or I are - which is why I think he should be in the Cabinet."

No doubt the Chief Whip should have seen this coming. But he was still dumbfounded when it did. "You ... what?" he gasped "You've just won an election by the biggest landslide since 1906 and you're thinking of putting Tories in the Cabinet?"

"Oh, I don't think we'll have to do that. You see, I've already put my feelers out and I think there's a group, a surprisingly large group actually, which would be prepared to join the Labour Party now on the right terms. And you can see why, if they're ambitious. Look, the new Tory intake, such as it is, is pretty neo-Thatcherite. It's clear they will elect Michael Portillo as leader just as soon as he can get a seat back in a by-election. They're already looking for some poor sap in a Tory seat to fall on his sword. So do you think any principled, self-respecting, one-nation, pro- European Tories want to serve under Portillo? In opposition, for what could be three or four Parliaments? You see, I hate to use that well-worn Marxism Today expression but I'm a hegemonic figure now. And they know it."

The Chief Whip could not let this go on. "I can just see what might be in it for them. But what in God's name is there in it for us?"

"Well first, there's the point that we could use some ministerial experience. Only Margaret Beckett and Gavin Strang out of the whole front bench have had any at all, and that at a very junior level. But the second point is this. We should pick these guys up while we can if we're really going to be the one-nation party. Otherwise they'll sit on the sidelines, hoping that I take the country into the single currency. And then they'll gradually re-group. As the Tories lose more elections, they'll start turning the party back into a fully fledged Christian Democratic force that can win elections, sharing a lot of our values. If we cream off their leadership now, we can set that process back a generation."

Deeply uncomfortable as he felt, the Chief Whip could feel the argument slipping away from him. And in any case Blair now changed gear effortlessly from the philosophical to the practical. Pulling another sheet from his Red Box, he said: "Let's get down to business. I had thought of keeping Clarke as Chancellor. He's done a damned good job - even if he did relax the grip on inflation right at the end. But a promise to Gordon is a promise, and anyway I think he'll be just a mite tougher. So I think, much as Robin will dislike it, Ken had better be Foreign Secretary.

"Before I go any further, we're going to need a couple of Liberal Democrats to reward Ashdown's 1995 decision to end equidistance and to pave the way for a merger in the longer term." This, at least, the Chief Whip had half expected. "I see Menzies Campbell at Defence and Paddy at Education. Now, you'll be pleased to learn I've been pretty selective about the Tories. Hurd's gone. Heseltine - who by the way supported the Social Chapter as keenly as I do when he was on the back benches - has said thanks, but no thanks. Rifkind - I'm just not sure. He's so unsound on EMU for one thing. But Stephen Dorrell would be excellent. He fought long and hard at the Treasury for using the tax system to encourage more long termism in investment which makes him just our kind of guy. I rather see him in the DTI. And I've never understood why Major didn't put someone as able as Sir George Young in the Cabinet."

Speechless, the Chief Whip, resorted to a helpless wave of his right hand. "Oh yes I know - that business over the National Power sale in 1995. Well, first I don't think he was responsible. And second, you call yourself a socialist. Well, what could be more socialist than a flotation in which the taxpayer, or the state, if you prefer it, benefits a little at the expense of the private shareholder? And by the way, Chris Patten would be perfect as Leader of the Lords as soon as he comes back from Hong Kong in July. He's definitely one of us."

At this point the Chief Whip had had enough. But when he tried to get up from the leather armchair, he found he was somehow paralysed. Relentlessly, but in a quiet, reasonable tone, Blair continued. "Everybody has assumed that I'll make Derry Irvine Lord Chancellor, and of course he'd be wonderful. But that would look like favouritism, given he's one of my closest friends and mentors. So I think I'll keep Mackay. He wasn't a Tory at all until he joined the Government as Lord Advocate in 1979. And he is absolutely serious about radical reform of the legal profession.

"And there's just one other thing. There's one more senior member of the Tory Cabinet who's lost his way a bit in the past few years. But if you look back at what he was saying about Europe just after the fall of Thatcher, there's nothing that I wouldn't have said myself. He's a decent one-nation man at heart. And there are some subjects he has a better grasp of than anyone in British politics. So I don't think anyone would make a better Northern Ireland Secretary than John Major.''

As Blair advanced towards him brandishing the list, the panic attack which now seized the Chief Whip was overwhelming. He tried to get up again but he remained rooted to the spot, immobilised by fear. He tried to scream but no sound emerged...

He woke up, drenched with sweat, to the Today programme on his radio alarm. He looked at his watch. He had an hour and a half before his meeting with the Prime Minister. After a shower and coffee he felt physically much better. He decided to walk to the Commons but his deep sense of foreboding stayed with him until he arrived at the Prime Minister's office. Blair was there smiling, holding a mug of coffee. The Chief Whip could feel the sweat pricking his armpits again. "Are you OK?" asked Blair in a kindly voice. "You look a bit pale. Anyway here's the Cabinet list. There aren't many surprises, though you'll see I've cleared out some dead wood from the Shadow Cabinet. And by the way, you'll be working closely with Gordon, John, Robin and Jack on medium-term strategy. Just one thing - could you think about minister of state jobs for Ken Livingstone and Tony Banks? They're bright guys and I think it's better to have them inside the tent."

Blair thought he knew his colleagues pretty well, including their foibles. He had always thought of his new promotee as a rather undemonstrative man. And he would never know why the Chief Whip at that moment danced a little jig before bounding over to the Prime Minister and giving him an enveloping bear hug.

(With apologies to Bertrand Russell's 'Nightmares').